Agricultural fairs and petting zoos pose an inherent public health hazard by bringing the general public into direct contact with various animals, which can carry a host of human pathogens, including E. coli O157:H7.
There’s nothing more American than the state fair. Countless millions visit them each year for some up close and personal–sometimes even hands on–time with farm animals. What fair-goers are finding out though, is that petting zoos and livestock exhibitions often harbor the lethal bacteria E. coli O157:H7.
Most people associate E. coli O157:H7 with undercooked hamburgers from fast food restaurants. The problem is not so confined. Infection can occur in a variety of ways, including attendance at a petting zoo, and those most prone to serious illness are our children.
Any place where people come into contact with farm animals must be considered high risk for exposure to E. coli and other pathogens. The track record speaks for itself. Since 1995, fifteen outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 have been reported at fairs and petting zoos in the United States (see
Hundreds have been sickened. Some, mostly kids, suffer permanent kidney damage due to a complication of E. coli infection called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. Some have even died.

In 2003, 24 people fell ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections after attending the county fair at Fort Bend, Texas. In 2002, at least 82 people became sick after attending the Lane County Fair in Eugene, Oregon. In 1998, at least 781 people became ill after attending a fair in Washington County near Albany, New York. The list goes on.
In 2001, observing the dangerous trend, the CDC warned operators of petting zoos and county fairs to clean up. The warning, however, has gone unheeded, and lessons from previous outbreaks are going unlearned. Last month, over 100 people were sickened at the North Carolina State Fair.
A recent USDA study of over 20 county fairs found E. coli O157:H7 in 13.8 percent of beef cattle, 5.9 percent of dairy cattle, and slightly smaller percentages of sheep, pigs and goats — nearly the same percentages found in animals in feed lots. How many of us would take our kids to visit and pet animals in a feed lot?
What do we do? Banish state and county fairs? Eliminate Petting Zoos? Of course not. But fair organizers can take some rather simple and inexpensive precautions:

  • Sanitize walkways and railings, and provide ample hand-washing areas for both employees and visitors.
  • Stop selling or allowing food in close proximity to areas where animals are on display.
  • Increase ventilation of buildings to reduce the risk of airborne contamination. Keep livestock areas damp with an approved disinfectant.
  • Test all display animals for E. coli O157:H7 — or require that exhibitors show proof that their animals are pathogen-free.
  • Post signs that explain the importance of hand-washing before and after visiting animal exhibition areas and petting zoos. Post warnings at entrances, emphasizing the risks to children and of the potential for airborne transmission of disease.

Perhaps these precautions won’t eliminate all the risk to public health. But for a minimal investment, organizers can reduce the risk of sending kids to the hospital – or worse.